Richard Stearns. Unfinished: Believing Is Only the Beginning. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013. 288 pp. $24.99.
Some Christian leaders contend that we are divided and ineffective in our witness because the Western world has turned against us and the church has abandoned the truth of the gospel. Others see a hostile, hurting world and blame the church for failing in compassion for the kind of sinners Jesus joined for dinner.
And then there’s Richard Stearns, president of World Vision and a former corporate CEO, who faults the church for a lack of will to finish the mission Jesus left behind for us. Following up on his successful first book, The Hole in Our Gospel, Stearns observes in Unfinished: Believing Is Only the Beginning (Thomas Nelson) that “affluent, comfortable, and distracted” Christians no longer burn with passion to change the world. Yet we still want to know our lives matter. We want to know we’re living out God’s purpose for us. We don’t want to confine our Christianity to Sunday morning. Stearns seeks to reinvigorate our Christianity with zeal to resume the revolution launched by Jesus so we can storm the very gates of hell.
But if we’re going to finish the mission, Stearns warns, we’ll need fewer cheerleaders and more drill sergeants commanding from our pulpits. Consumer-oriented churches, popular among Western Christians, draw especially pointed criticism from Stearns.
“Better the church should shrink than risk losing its God-given purpose and identity,” he writes. “A community of true disciples authentically living out the teachings of Scripture is far more attractive than a latte bar or a Vegas-style musical performance.”
Stearns peppers Unfinished with biblical quotations and does not shy away from Jesus’ hardest teachings. He challenges readers with his personal story of giving up so much money and prestige when he left the corporate world for the nonprofit sector. But he does not suggest that all Christians must follow his example. Rather, he encourages Christians to pursue their unique calling by serving where they are before considering whether God would take them elsewhere.
He also doesn’t just fault his business-class peers for their excess. He challenges every one of us to consider whether we’ve really taken up our cross and followed Jesus in obedience to his command. Stearns reminds us that Jesus promised we would find abundant life only when we give it up. This book includes some of the best, clearest advice I’ve seen on how to do this, especially for younger Christians who itch to serve God in radical ways. Patience and faithfulness, Stearns tells us, are the keys to discovering our calling. When you’re available, faithful, and thoughtful in service, then you can trust God with the outcome of your life. Start small as you dream big. And ask yourself these deceptively straightforward questions posed by Stearns:
Have you adopted kingdom values and principles, worked to change your bad habits, forgiven those who have wronged you, been loving to others, been generous with your money, become part of a local church, volunteered at church for the more humble jobs, put others ahead of yourself, and tithed your income?
For youthful radicals, such questions may bring necessary pause. But more mature Christians may wonder whether anyone can withstand such scrutiny if he dares answer honestly.
Our King Is Enraged
In a divided church, leaders across the theological spectrum will agree on at least one thing: God is not happy with us. And that’s the general tone Stearns strikes in Unfinished. Faulting Christians for prioritizing career, lifestyle, social lives, and happiness, Stearns says, “I have no doubt that our King is also enraged . . . and brokenhearted.” Stearns argues throughout the book that the church today has all the resources, knowledge, size, and power to fulfill God’s mission for us. We lack only the will, and Stearns aims to shame us into action.
Interestingly, Stearns does not target nominal Christians or the passive masses. After all, they’re not likely to read this book or any other of its kind. He writes to fairly serious Christians like the ones who picked up The Hole in Our Gospel to read with their small group or Sunday school class. These are Christians who probably serve in their churches and seek to grow through regular Bible reading and prayer. More specifically, Stearns is worried that too many Christians have glutted themselves on knowledge. God wants our obedience, he says, not our doctrine.
But you need doctrine to answer key questions about obedience: How do you know you’ve done enough to please God? How can you be sure he’ll regard you as a good and faithful servant? Stearns helpfully repeats the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection for sinners. But he could have more explicitly reminded readers that no matter the measure of our obedience, all must return again and again to the grace of God that preserves and protects.
The many examples of faithful Christians cited by Stearns depend on this grace. These wonderfully inspiring Christians, ordinary believers like you and me, give up not just their money but their very selves for the sake of Jesus, his kingdom, and their global neighbors. Stearns wisely goes beyond just telling us what to do. He shows us Christians who have done it in the power of the Holy Spirit.
They Hated Him
If they haven’t started squirming already, readers will really start to feel the heat around chapter four, titled “Magic Kingdom, Tragic Kingdom, and the Kingdom of God.” Stearns asks a painfully practical question: “How can we hold in one hand the truth that Jesus loves the poor, the widow, and the orphan, yet hold in our other hand the tickets to our upcoming Disney vacation?” You would expect nothing less from the president of the largest Christian aid organization. Stearns has seen more than his share of suffering around the world. Yet he remains sensitive to these great needs.
At a time when hope is hard to find, Stearns remains optimistic that Christians can make a difference about global poverty and maybe even earn the world’s respect and admiration in the process. Stearns observes, “[L]oving our enemies, living with integrity, caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, and being generous with our possessions don’t ever seem to divide or make enemies.”
But is this true? If Jesus is our example in these acts of love, why did the world hate him and his apostles? Why did Jesus tell us the world would hate us for loving him? Surely we can all agree that the church should follow Christ’s command to love our neighbors whether or not we ever receive thank-you notes. But when, for instance, we suffer for our heroic stands on behalf of the most helpless among us—the unborn, for example—we understand why we can’t allow the reaction of our neighbors to dictate our agenda.
As Christians feel the Western world growing more hostile toward the church, it’s tempting to blame ourselves. We specialize in the jeremiad that places the sins of the world at the church’s door. If only we did more, gave more, loved more. Evangelicals are at heart activists. We never settle for the status quo.
Yet we also know the sin that finds refuge in the dark recesses of the heart. We long for Jesus’ return, when he will take away our love of sinning and wipe away all our tears. We also know that until then, we’ll disappoint—probably our neighbors, certainly ourselves. Somehow, though, God’s grace will be enough. Somehow the treasure of the gospel, stored in our jars of clay, will testify to God's power. And somehow he will finish the good work he started in us.
Editors’ note: This review originally appeared at Christianity Today.
Collin Hansen serves as editorial director for The Gospel Coalition. He is the co-author of A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir. He and his wife belong to Redeemer Community Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and he serves on the advisory board of Beeson Divinity School. You can follow him on Twitter.